Covid-19: Business Fire Safety
Covid-19 restrictions mean that some businesses are changing how they operate in order to stay open. Here’s what you need to consider if you’re adapting your business:
Jump to a section:
- Premises which are open or about to re-open
- Closed premises
- Scaling the risk
- Businesses with vulnerable people
- Alterations to buildings
Premises which are open or about to re-open
All premises that are permitted to open, must do so within the government guidelines which can be located here.
Fire safety needs to be considered alongside the need to make a premises COVID Secure.
Some control measures which reduce the risk from COVID may have an adverse effect on fire safety. It will be necessary to review and update the premises Fire Risk Assessment to ensure it is current and reflects the way the premises are operating, with the risk from fire assessed against the risk from COVID-19.
Points to be considered may include (not exhaustive):
- Where staffing and occupant levels have changed this may affect evacuation arrangements in event of fire.
- Where parts of the premises are not being used or are being used differently e.g. working and operating practices have changed due to rearrangement of layouts, this may affect the means of escape.
- Social distancing control measures should not adversely affect fire safety measures e.g. obstructing means of escape, fire escape signage, fire detection and alarm systems, sprinkler or suppressions systems
- If a one-way system or process is introduced to control the flow of occupants, its impact on the means of escape must be assessed to ensure occupants have a suitable means of escape in event of fire, specifically they do have to travel excessive distances.
- If partitions have been introduced, consider what these are made of – they should restrict the spread of fire
- Ensuring any changes impacting the exterior of any premises e.g. temporary structures or queuing systems, do not obstruct means of escape or compromise assembly points. If the existing means of escape or assembly point is compromised, alternative suitable arrangements should be in place in accordance with the revised fire risk assessment. If unsure, seek advice from your competent fire risk assessor.
- Where external access is altered, changing car parking areas into queuing zones for example, this must not compromise access for firefighting appliances or interfere with firefighting activities.
- Ensuring means of escape are easily available as they may not have been used for some time or where an escape route is shared, and other premises remain closed.
- Reviewing measures implemented to increase security/reduce the risk of arson whilst the premises have not been used, as these may have adversely affected fire safety measures.
- Reviewing storage and stock levels e.g. the amount and positioning of stock.
- If you’re introducing cooking to serve food in your business, consider the fire risks. You’ll need to make sure that you have the right fire alarm, firefighting equipment and that you regularly clean the grease from any extraction system.
- Where fire safety measures have not been maintained e.g. automatic fire alarm and detection systems or automatic fire suppression systems and have not received their routine servicing or testing.
- Staff training – if this has not been undertaken for some time, new staff have started, or fire safety measures have been altered then staff should be provided with appropriate fire safety training. Once the Fire Risk Assessment has been reviewed it is important any changes or updates are relayed to staff and occupants to ensure they are aware of these changes and what to do in event of fire.
Some premises remain closed or will have to close depending on the local COVID Alert Level or national lockdown measures (where applicable).
There may also be an increase in business closures for financial reasons as a result of the trading environment during the pandemic leaving premises unoccupied but still containing stock, fixtures and fittings. In any case, the following should be considered:
- Risk of arson - Securing premises is important to reduce the risk of arson. This includes removing any external sources of fuel or ignition which could cause fire spread. Piles of rubbish or other flammable materials left behind can be a popular target for arson.
- Ensuring gates and fences are closed and locked as well as having working CCTV, security systems and external lighting may help to prevent the anti-social behaviour which can lead to arson.
- Shared Means of Escape - Securing a premises should not affect the means of escape from other premises which are still open, from residential buildings or where wayleave agreements are in place.
- Maintaining Fire Safety Measures
The internal fire protection measures such as fire doors should be kept closed and in good order as these provide vital protection in event of fire.
The maintenance and testing of the fire detection and alarm system should be continued where it is possible and safe to do so. This should be prioritised based on the risks identified by the RP and their Contractors E.g. Fire in the shop, now closed, affecting the residents in the flat above.
Where the fire detection and alarm system serve multiple premises, (some of which may still be operating) it should be ensured that the system still provides the required level of cover to all areas.
Arrangements should also be put in place to access closed areas of the building if maintenance is required.
Scaling the Risk
Premises which are open may have less capacity to deliver (e.g. pubs have less physical capacity to deal with normal customer levels).
The following should be considered:
- It is essential that Fire Risk Assessments are undertaken or reviewed where there are significant changes in ways of working or processes.
This may include: -
More materials, storage requirements, or higher quantities of finished product being on site than would normally be the case.
Parts of the premises being closed; the Fire Risk Assessment should determine the level of risk resulting from the changes and any mitigation measures e.g. more frequent deliveries/collections or the use of other sites to provide storage.
Where staff numbers have been increased or may be working in unfamiliar environments, premises must ensure that they continue to provide appropriate staff training. This is sometimes overlooked where employees of the same company come to work at a different site.
RPs should be able to show that all personnel are aware of what to do in case of fire. They should also test their emergency procedures, particularly after staff increases.
Reductions in staff due to sickness and self-isolation is to be expected. While the numbers of those who are absent will be bolstered by those returning to work, in the short-term, premises should ensure that their Fire Risk Assessment reflects the added risk of such reductions.
Issues may include having insufficient staff available to carry out processes safely, increasing the risk of fire. Similarly, a reduction in staff may result in employees not being able to successfully carry out evacuations and emergency procedures such as in-house fire response or fire warden duties.
Businesses with Vulnerable People
Premises may employ people who are classed as vulnerable, or those who are vulnerable may be in their care. The effects of the virus on working practices and available staff may negatively affect the ability of vulnerable persons to escape in the event of fire.
Employers should continue to undertake and review their Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) for their staff. This is particularly crucial in the care industry where residents may rely on staff to instigate evacuation measures. In any case, procedures should be reviewed so that they accurately reflect the staff available. Such reviews must carefully weigh the risks from fire and the ability of such businesses to operate safely.
Alterations to Buildings
While the use of buildings for medical purposes is underway across the country, this normally refers to field hospitals or expansion within the existing NHS estate. The guidance already published on the matter should be consulted.
Other alterations – such as wedging fire doors open to reduce the need to touch door handles or sealing fire doors in order to prevent air movement between sections of a building – could affect fire safety measures to provide protection from fire and access to means of escape and is not acceptable.
Government guidance to premises makes it clear that measures to reduce COVID risk should only be taken if they do not compromise fire safety. Similarly, premises may have undertaken other measures, such as partitioning or simply locking of doors, that may compromise a building’s existing fire strategy.
Some premises may still be operating in a repurposed capacity. An example would be a warehouse which previously had a very small risk and few staff, now undertaking essential work to provide manufacture of medical items or the packing of food parcels. This may have happened within a short timeframe and it is unlikely that fire safety will have been a primary consideration. Such actions may increase the risk due to the type of work being carried out, the number of staff present, and any material works that may be necessary to allow the building to facilitate its task.
In all cases, a review of the Fire Risk Assessment should be undertaken to determine the effect on risk and the mitigation measures that may need to be taken.
In addition, the current pandemic does not remove any requirements under the Building Regulations to ensure that alterations meet the functional requirements.
The information contained above is of a temporary nature in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic and relates to ongoing Government advice and restrictions related to COVID-19.
Please refer to the Government’s guidance on COVID-19